Tuesday, December 3, 2013

How Identity Politics Destroyed the Left

It is difficult not to view Maine U.S. Rep. and would-be governor Mike Michaud's recent disclosure that he is gay with a degree of cynicism.

His announcement, made via an Op-Ed in Maine's two major dailies, The Portland Press Herald and The Bangor Daily News as well as the Associated Press, smacks of a shallow, calculated attempt to win over the progressive LGBT vote in next year's gubernatorial election.

This is in no way meant to diminish the very act of Michaud's coming out. Certainly it is not the place of heterosexual observers to dictate the timing, method and manner in which gay public officials choose to disclose their sexual orientation--or, for that matter, whether one chooses to disclose such personal information at all. And one must be at least somewhat sympathetic to the tightrope balancing act public officials like Michaud--who presides over Maine's northern, more conservative Second District where voters are likely to be less accepting of gay rights--must engage in.

That being said, local political columnist Al Diamon (yes, that Al Diamon) is justified in his recent criticism of Michaud's repeated votes against gay rights legislation as both a state legislator and a member of the House of Representatives ("Where were you when I needed you?", The Portland Phoenix11/11/2013). Michaud, Diamon writes, "stepped up after the war was mostly won."

He continues:

If he's successful in becoming the first gay man to be elected governor of any state, it won't be because he was brave. It'll be because he sat silently on the sidelines for 30 years while real heroes fought to change public attitudes.

It is a valid point--one that recalls then-Senator Barack Obama's stated opposition to the Iraq war, while he continued voting for additional military-spending bills to fund that very war. Yet it is a point that Michaud's liberal supporters--many of whom have already adorned their vehicles with "Michaud 2014" bumper stickers--peevishly brush aside as inconsequential or "mean-spirited."

Former U.S. Congressman and recent Maine transplant Barney Frank (D-MA) in a follow-up letter to the editor published in The Phoenix ("Diamon misreads Michaud," 11/20/13), castigates Diamon's "tone." Frank's defensive, hyper-partisan letter is emblematic of "progressive" gay rights advocates who have absolutely no trouble overlooking the fact that the two most egregious anti-LGBT bills in the last two decades--The Defense of Marriage Act and Don't Ask, Don't Tell--were passed by President Bill Clinton. Or those gay rights "defenders" (like Equality Maine) who refuse to speak out against the unjust imprisonment of Pfc. Chelsea Manning.

The fact is Maine, overall, is pretty accepting of gay rights--and Rep. Michaud knows this. This move was little more than a calculated effort to win over the state's LGBT base. It is, furthermore, emblematic of the cult of "identity politics" which has all but destroyed the left.

Identity politics has become the raison d'etre of the liberal left in this country. Those on the left no longer stand up against poverty, militarism, or a broader sense of social justice. They took to the streets en mass to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but promptly halted such actions when Obama became president. They instead dabble in what Chris Hedges calls the "boutique activism" of multiculturalism, inclusivity and other forms of so-called "identity politics."

Don't get me wrong: I wholeheartedly support all of these efforts.

The problem is, in abandoning a broader sense of social justice for highly specific issue or identity-oriented activism (be it the plight of lesbians, gays, blacks, immigrants, women, etc.), the left has allowed itself to become splintered, isolated and largely ineffective. While the focus on these various "isms" has certainly called much needed attention to the oppression of minority groups, the effort fails to critique the actual system of corporate capitalism which causes such oppression in the first place.

As Hedges observes in his 2010 book, Death of the Liberal Class, "Making sure people of diverse races or sexual orientations appear on television shows or in advertisements merely widens the circle of new consumers. Multiculturalism is an appeal that pleads with the corporate power structure for inclusion" (p. 125).

Contemporary liberals have seemingly lost any sense of class struggle which Karl Marx correctly understood as the central root of all societal inequality and the great scourge of capitalism. The left has, in a sense, lost sight of the big picture. Identity politics has become an end in of itself.

Furthermore, by ignoring class entirely, identity politics erroneously lumps all members of a given minority group together, suggesting their political aims and goals are all the same. Contrary to the dictates of multiculturalism, one can be female, black or gay and still be part of the economic one percent. (Oprah Winfrey, Clarence Thomas, Barney Frank and "feminist" scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter come to mind. Come to think of it... add President Obama to that list as well.)

To wit: This past summer, Supreme Court Justice Thomas voted with the conservative majority to gut key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The notoriously taciturn Thomas has, likewise, compared modern day affirmative action practices to slavery.

Indeed, Thomas's callous indifference to the plight of the majority of black Americans recalls the traitorous, self-serving Dr. Bledsoe in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. When the college-aged, African American narrator inadvertently takes one of the university's wealthy white donors to the impoverished black ghettos on the outskirts of campus, Dr. Bledsoe, the college president, reacts furiously. Upon expelling the narrator, Bledsoe reveals his true sycophantic nature.

"I's big and black and I say 'Yes, suh' as loudly as any burrhead when it's convenient," Dr. Bledsoe tells the narrator in one of the novel's most frightening passages. "but I'm still the king down here."

The only ones I even pretend to please are big white folks, and even those I control more than they control me... That's my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about... It's a nasty deal and I don't always like it myself.... But I've made my place in it and I'll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am.
Nationally, the Democratic Party stands for little more than the vague concepts of inclusivity and identity politics. Women, Latinos, African Americans and members of the LGBT community were vital to Obama's win in last year's presidential election.

The irony, of course, is Obama has overseen the deportation of more immigrants than any other president in history. In the year since the president's re-election, a number of states have arbitrarily passed some of the most restrictive abortion access laws in the country, despite liberals' insistence that such continued reproductive freedom hinged on Obama's re-election. (Currently, eight states have outlawed abortion at 20 weeks post-fertilization.)

If we are losing the fight against corporate capitalism, it is because the strict focus on identity politics has, counter to its aims, left us more divided. The left, if it is to ever be relevant again, needs to rediscover its radical roots. We also cannot afford to wait around for closeted or otherwise self-sabotaging politicians to determine when it is politically convenient for them to stand up and stop actively working to undermine their own brothers and sisters.

To that end, Congressman Michaud's sexual orientation should not be our--or, for that matter, his--primary focus. As Maine voters, we should be far more concerned with what he will, as governor, do to take the state forward and reclaim it from the corporate interests that threaten so much of it and the rest of the nation.   




  1. Great article, Adam. I always look forward to reading your posts.

  2. To be fair, liberals never believed in class struggle in the first place. They've always been supporters of capitalism and war (remember Vietnam? Can't blame conservatives for that one!).